by Irvin Muchnick
As I reported on my blog, the National Football League bragged that commissioner Roger Goodell got a standing ovation for his speech Monday at the convention of the Congress of Neurological Surgeons (CNS) in Washington. In his speech, Goodell repeated a laundry list of initiatives on the national football concussion crisis that many critics believe are inadequate, unenforced, and unenforceable. The NFL also has been documented to have manipulated research and misled the public on traumatic brain injury for decades. For that reason, I liken a standing ovation for Goodell by a professional medical group to one for a CEO of a tobacco company announcing the introduction of filtered cigarettes in the 1960s.
Below is my letter to Dr. Christopher C. Getch, the president of the CNS and a professor of neurological surgery at Northwestern University in Chicago.
Dear Dr. Getch:
According to Brian McCarthy of the National Football League office, Roger Goodell received a standing ovation at his speech at your conference Monday. Mr. McCarthy added in an email to me, “You could check with any of the 3,000 attendees who were there if you don’t believe me.”
I believe Mr. McCarthy. I also believe that these 3,000 men and women – almost all of them, presumably, members of your organization – summarily disqualified themselves for consideration for appointment to the experts panel now being assembled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to design national school sports concussion guidelines.
In his speech, Mr. Goodell said, “Our decisions are very often adopted at the youth, high school and college levels.” I agree with the commissioner there.
Mr. Goodell also said, “No player in any sport should ever again ‘walk it off’ after a blow to the head. The decision to return to play is one solely in the hands of the medical professionals.”
Yet after star player Michael Vick got concussed on national television on September 18, he was cleared to play by an “independent neurologist” the league refused to identify.
Dr. Getch, I would like your opinion on how plausible and advisable it is for an athlete sustaining a concussion to return to practice and play just days later, and on how many others in the CNS you believe share your views. After Vick’s first game back, Bob Ley, the respected anchor of ESPN’s Outside the Lines, conducted an interview with Phil Sheridan, a Philadelphia journalist, in which they examined Vick’s obvious continuing mental fuzziness.
More importantly, as the NFL commissioner suggested, the league’s best and worst practices filter down to the amateur levels. At Yukon High School in Oklahoma, quarterback Corben Jones suffered a concussion at a game on September 23, yet played the next game a week later. Even many of those advocating different protocols for the professional sport agree that youngsters should never rush back to action; Dr. Bennet Omalu, the forensic pathologist who discovered chronic traumatic encephelopathy in prematurely dead football players, has called for a 90-day waiting period for youth athletes.
Yet the Oklahoman newspaper quoted Corben Jones’ coach, Todd Wilson, saying he “never worried that his quarterback would miss the game. ‘You never know with a head injury, but knowing Corben, it would have had to been pretty bad to keep him off the field Friday,’ Wilson said. ‘It didn’t surprise me that he performed pretty well.’”
The Oklahoman named Jones “City-Area Player of the Week.”
So far as I can tell, the only individual or agency in the country keeping conscientious and comprehensive data on high school and youth football brain injuries is Missouri writer Matt Chaney. According to Chaney, “The annual Catastrophic Injury Center report is missing many brain-debilitation cases in American football every year.” By Chaney’s count, critical-care brain injury No. 8 in 2011 prep football was sustained last Friday in Chandler, Arizona, by Valley Christian High School’s Dylan Lackhan. He had emergency surgery for a subdural hematoma.
The Congress of Neurological Surgeons is not supposed to be a cheerleader wing of the National Football League. As I did immediately after the reports of the Goodell speech and its reception, I challenge the CNS to release the video and take public account of this incident for your group’s independence and credibility. I look forward to hearing back from you.
P.S. After this story was filed, writer Matt Chaney reported a ninth serious football head injury this season: Zeth Shouse of Elko (Nevada) High School. In Facebook updates, young Shouse’s mother says he has had two brain surgeries after being injured last Friday, and is in a “chemically forced paralysis.” The hope is that keeping him absolutely still will help relieve the pressure on his brain.